Turn Unhappy Customers Into Big Fans

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I often tell the story about my GE phone. It died literally one day after the warranty expired. I called their customer service and explained the situation. They said “Sorry, it’s out of warranty. We have to draw the line somewhere.” Now, I believe that. I also believe that they drew the line in the wrong place. For this one customer, the GE brand took a hit that day, and outside of a light bulb, I haven’t purchased a GE product since then.

Now, maybe I just hold a grudge too long. But the reality is, I have many choices. I’d already choosen GE, but rather than delight me, they disappointed me. That was all the reason I needed to look elsewhere—and stay elsewhere over the past 17 years.

In the residential service world, you wouldn’t be wise to be as cavalier about customer service as GE was in that case. Your existing customers are your best source of business. (See the conveniently worded “Are Existing Customers YOUR Best Source of Business?”)  And your customers have a lot of choices, so you’d best treat them well.

Now, the best way to keep customers happy is to do what you say you’re going to do, and more, throughout each customer’s experience. Heck, if you use the approaches described here all the time, you’re probably avoid a lot of problems in the first place. But we’ll all human. Your staff is human. And your customers are human. As such mistakes and miscommunication can happen despite the best intentions and processes. But if you handle any complaints well—and part of “well” is “fast”—you can turn a momentarily unhappy customer into a lifelong fan.

The basic approach should dovetail nicely with a quality-focused and customer-focused organization. (You’ll even see elements common to handling objections in the sales process.)

  • Act fast. Don’t wait, procrastinate, or stall. Complaints are less likely to fade away over time and more likely to fester. That is true even if you don’t hear about them again. And you risk losing not just that customer, but everyone else they talk with.  (And in today’s social media environment, it’s relatively easy to broadcast bad news fast–and those one-star rating don’t help you.)
  • Listen to understand.  Real listening takes the edge off the customer’s anger. You need to really try to understand what they’re saying and show you care.  You have an opportunity to emphasize and to even thank them for bringing the issue to your attend.  You will likely have to ask some questions to make sure you understand what the problem is. And find out what solution the customer is looking for.
  • Don’t jump to blame or excuses.  Your customer wants to know what you’re going to do to make things right. Blaming someone else or providing excuses doesn’t get the customer to where he wants to be.
  • Propose a solution, including the timing of anything that can’t happen immediately.  If you’ve got the facts, and it’s clear that you screwed up, suggest a way to fix things, and sooner rather than later.  This is the point to get the customer’s buy-in. “Is that okay?”
  • If your customer isn’t happy with your proposed solution, ask him what he thinks would be fair.  Most people are reasonable if you give them a chance to be. If their suggestion is reasonable, take it.  I said “reasonable”, not comfortable. If you screwed up, the fix might be expensive. It might cause you to lose money on the project.  That’s part of playing bean bag—you own the vase you knocked over and broke. Now, occasionally you’ll come across an unreasonable customer. If those cases look for a good way out, even at your own expense. (And make a note in your system that you’re not the right company for that customer for future business.).
  • The appropriate staff person, preferably as close to the complaint as possible, should bird dog the issue until it is closed out.  Empower your folks to solve problems on the spot. If the person on the phone is able to solve it, let him!  (Set some clear guidelines here, like “if it cost lest than $100 just do it.” Or “in the case of X, immediately fix the problem and offer Y.”  If the first in line can’t solve the probrlem, he owns the problem until it’s picked up by the next person in line, and then she owns it. Make sure you have a positive hand-off, though, not just leaving a message—you need to be able to tell the customer what is going to happen and when. Whoever is taking the complaint must ensure that the process is not “dropped”. This is absolutely critical.  Minor complaints become major when you don’t follow through all the way to completion.
  • Document all along the way. This is first and foremost to help you understand what is expected of you. And it’s also an important CYA step for that small percentage of customers who are going to be reasonable.
  • Make sure you—whoever owns the complaint—follows up and documents that the customer was satisfied with the fix. This is the belt and suspenders approach to making sure that you’ve done what you said you were going to do. And it also helps ensure the customer leaves with a good impression—remember, you want them to keep coming back forever.

Lastly, and looping back around to that prevention idea, I’ll add that it’s a good idea to track all complaints. This gives you an opportunity to look for patterns and either adjust your processes or your training to help avoid problems in the first place. Being able to handle complaints well is important, but it should be rare. Being able to deliver quality and make customers happy the first time is even more important.


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About the Author:

Mike Rogers is the President of OmStout Consulting. A nationally recognized expert in residential energy-efficiency, he works with contractors and programs to scale sustainable market approaches to improving homes. More on Google+

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